Parashat Sh’mini is known most notably for the tragic and dramatic moment when Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu take it upon themselves to offer sacrifices contrary to the proper procedure that God sets forth in this week’s Torah portion. Taking the risk of doing so ultimately led them to suffer the most serious of consequences when God sends a fire from heaven to kill them. The text of the Torah leaves us stunned at such a harsh decree. Their father, the high priest Aaron, is speechless. “Vayidom Aharon and Aaron was silent.”
Next Aaron turns to his next two sons Itamar and Elazar to take on the role as heir apparent to Aaron. We learn how important it is to follow the rules that God sets down in this priestly ritual and that deviating from the proscribed procedures will bring the ultimate consequences. The rest of the story portrays Moses irritated with Aaron for the next set of sons who do not follow the rules of eating the sacrifices inside the Holy Tabernacle. Apparently the two youth took the food outside and ate when they should have waited and consumed their assigned portion of the sacrificial offerings in the presence of the Holy One.
This time Aaron is not silent and he appeals to Moses knowing full well of what could happen to them. He even pleads with Moses basically saying, ‘Give me a break.’ He convinces Moses that they really did not break the rules and ultimately Moses concedes and saying that he himself was incorrect in his interpretation of the new laws. In other words Moses admits he made a mistake this time.
From the lens of modern times it may be difficult to find relevant meaning. But the truth is that there is always a lesson for us in Torah if we dig deep enough through the ancient texts. The problem begins with us imagining a God who uses power in such a violent way towards his own clergy ordained to serve the Eternal. How can we reconcile that kind of God like behavior with what we imagine God-like behavior today? And finally is there something inside us, deeply imbedded within us that is part of our human DNA that still needs to have a notion of a God that judges us and has power over us in our most vulnerable moments?
Let’s not forget that Reform Judaism abandoned any interest in or affiliation with the priestly hierarchy. We distanced ourselves a century ago from the institution of the priesthood and the Temple cult in Jerusalem. Yet if we step back we might be able to draw an analogy today and better understand the world that created this kind of mindset that would enable God to bring forth such punishments and in the same story show Moses reversing himself from his initial judgment of his nephews.
In our world today we want to encourage everyone to participate in the liturgy and in the rituals of our tradition. We do not have a priestly hierarchy anymore. We are all on the same equal playing field before God. We treat our rituals and ritual objects with reverence but we do not threaten punishments for infractions as to how we handle ritual acts in case we make a mistake in the middle of a worship service.
There is no doubt that we are much more casual today in how we understand our relationship to worship and to God as well. We don’t usually think of God as willing or capable of striking us with a bolt of lightning for incorrectly reciting a prayer or saying something in a sermon that might sound somewhat irreverent or humorous. Our atmosphere in public worship is about creating warmth and engagement as compared to the traditional feeling of awe and fear that surrounded the synagogue ritual for centuries let alone the sacrificial rituals in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. And yet despite all of our modern thinking is there a nerve inside us that harbors that instinctual fear of God or a need to fear God at moments that can only be described as events hinging on moments of life transition?
I have told this story before but it bears telling again when I once officiated at a Bat Mitzvah and the family opened the ark. Suddenly there was huge gasp that went throughout the congregation when the mother and the daughter both reached for the Torah and accidentally dropped it. Trust me when I say this that the entire congregation was stunned into silence. I could see the fear in people’s eyes and in the eyes of the humiliated and mortified Bat Mitzvah and her family. They knew that this was a serious situation beyond the embarrassment that both mother and daughter were experiencing. This was the closest I ever came to the feeling of God striking us all in that selfsame moment.
And so I explained to the congregation what Jewish law proscribed for this kind of an unintentional act. The Halachah states that the entire congregation must fast for thirty days from morning to evening. The other option to exempt us from that harsh decree was to read from the Mishnah a tractate. When I explained the teaching, the mother motioned to me and said, “Rabbi, please read from the Mishnah. Pleased read it.” In fact everyone else was said the same thing so I went to my study, retrieved a copy of the Mishnah and read a portion which took about fifteen minutes. I pronounced a blessing and said a special kaddish d’rabbanan to conclude this ritual and we went on with the service. We finished a bit late but it was fine given the situation. I saw in the experience that despite our modern sensibilities there was a vestige of something of the old time fear and reverence for the Torah and for God and maybe a bit of hedging our bets too by reading from the Mishnah as if we were expiating our communal sin.
We think of ourselves as modern and rational people. Intellectually we enjoy deconstructing God and religion in general. Yet there are moments, I discovered, where we still have deep inside us that ancient feeling of the same emotion of fear that stems from the power of the Eternal One- the one we call the Almighty. It is certainly not the notion of God we chose to emphasize today. But it still exists. I saw that primal emotion in the eyes of the parents that day on the bimah. I have seen it in the eyes of mourners. I have sensed it in the hearts of a parent praying to God over their child in a hospital bed. Yes, there are certain moments we all hope to avoid where we pray to God hoping that God will intervene on our side just because the circumstances are matters of life and death. Intellectual ideas of God melt away and we are left with a raw theology that takes over.
Perhaps there should be a balance between the acknowledging the basic instincts of human kind some of which are suppressed by the confidence we have by living in a basically secular world and the enlightened spirit we cherish that raises us to more loving and less fearful relationship with God and with ritual as well. Do we need both to enable religion to reach the core of our being which means affirming our self esteem and our revealing our most sensitive vulnerabilities too?
The story of Nadav and Abihu focuses on the underlying role of God as power. It is not about God’s power in nature but about God’s power to judge humankind and intervene in the moral affairs of Israel. It appears that today we are looking for a God who appears more like a muse and a counselor who comforts us and guides us gently and compassionately rather than the old time version of a God who exercises unrestrained will upon human beings regardless of the consequences based upon their actions. At the same time it is my contention that deeply hidden inside people in general and Jews in particular we see inside ourselves that despite our rational thinking and our modern sensibilities that there is still a part of our beliefs maybe it’s in our subconscious that we do possess an instinct to fear god when we are standing between life and death.
Paradoxically, we may want to give up those traditional hierarchical notions of a God of Power because they don’t fit into our vision of the world and how God today is defined. And yet a spark of awe and fear never really leaves our inner core especially in those critical moments of a lifetime. I wonder if the committee fashioning the forthcoming Reform High Holy Day Mahzor will accept that nuance about how Jewish theology really works. The effectiveness of the future High Holy Day Prayerbook project may depend upon it.